Wednesday 25 March 2020


Dodging the coronavirus by finding a new venue online as #BFIFlareAtHome, this year's festival continues on the BFI Player with For They Know Not What They Do, Daniel Karslake's documentary about the intersection and difficulties families have faced in finding the balance between their religion and their children's sexual and gender identities.

In frank interviews with Karslake, evangelical Christians like the Robertson's tell of their reaction to finding out their 12 year old son Ryan was gay. Telling him that he was putting his soul in jeopardy, to appease his parents Ryan went into years of conversion therapy in an effort to fight his feelings, before spiralling into a drug habit and homelessness. Ryan's parents, Rob and Linda, are upfront about their initial reaction and their failure to support their son by believing in the vitriolic hatred of homosexuality that was preached at their church and spread through their community.

A follow up to Karslake's previous film For The Bible Tells Me So (that also covered similar themes and also featured Bishop Gene Robinson of the Center for American Progress), the title here, For They Know Not What They Do, evokes a need for forgiveness and understanding of why these religious are so against these marginal groups, and it's clear from the documentary that what most of the objecting parents and grandparents suffer from is a lack of education on the matter, or perhaps it could better be described as mis-education. The film continuously cuts to disturbing video footage of pastors and preachers encouraging violence against homosexuals and transgender individuals, leading into Vico's story. Raised as Catholic and fearful of his father and grandmother's reaction to his homosexuality but met with acceptance and love, his world changed when he encouraged his friends to go with him to the Pulse nightclub in Florida on the night of the mass shooting in 2016.

The other two key subjects offer a glimmer of hope for the acceptance of transgender people, with the inspiring story of Sarah McBride who, after coming out as transgender in her last year of college, has continued to pursue the career in politics she wanted, including an internship in Obama's White House and speaking at the Democratic National Convention as the first openly transgender person to do so. Her story is not without its hardships, but there's something so moving about how her father smiles as he talks about her achievements. It also goes to highlight how much has changed since 2016. The last main focus of the film is on Elliot, a mixed-race teenager about to go to college. Despite knowing early on that he was transgender, Elliot fought back against his identity and tried to present as female, leading to a personal crisis and self harm, something that is all to common among transgender people. His parents are also quite open about their initial confusion about what to do; but its fair to say that the aim of the film is not to chastise those who were scared about their children's identities, but to tell their stories in order to help others react in a better way.

Karslake's documentary tells four wildly different stories of people and families from all different backgrounds. It doesn't hold back from showing how the current White House administration has done immeasurable harm to LGBTIQ communities, with a sharp rise in the murders of transgender people of colour in 2017, the barring of transgendered people from joining the armed forces and the continued acceptance of conversion therapy in 41 states where they are still legal. For They Know Not What They Do succeeds in giving each story the platform it deserves, featuring some traumatic stories but is ultimately an inspiring and uplifting experience. It should be seen be the friends and family of anyone in the LGBTIQ community, and hopefully by more too. Easily one of the best films of the festival.

For They Know Not What They Do is currently available on the BFI Player until March 29th as part of their #BFIFlareAtHome content, along with other features and a whole host of short films too. Catch them while you can.

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